by E.D.E.N. Southworth
Conditional Recommendation: Ishmael, though born motherless and impoverished, rises above his circumstances through humility, integrity and hard work.
If you’re used to fast-paced, action-packed, entertainment-driven stories, then this book could prove difficult to read; it contains more description, narration, and even pacing than such a reader might be prepared for. Even though the book was good, I had a hard time starting it or focusing when I was reading it and I blame the books I’d been reading beforehand rather than Ishmael itself. However, if you’ve read other older books like Bronte, Austen, Dickens, or Alcott then this book won’t be a problem. I encourage you to give yourself time to get into the story. And now, a big review for a big book!
You will never read a story that is more inspiring and challenging than Ishmael. The heights of success achieved by this young man reveal little of the utter poverty into which he was born. He enters life motherless and poor, and despite the wishes of everyone around, he survives and flourishes in his paltry environment. His commitment to integrity and his singular focus on preserving his mother’s name give his life focus and purpose. His perseverance and determination to educate himself in law give him the opportunity to influence the highest levels of government. E.D.E.N. Southworth captures the rich panorama of sights and sounds in rural Maryland in the decades prior to the Civil War.
The characters are this book’s crowning achievement, but it also gives us some delightful language by way of the narrator:
“What in the world is the matter with you, Nora? You are as restless as a kitten; what ails you?” asked Hannah.“Nothing,” was the answer.
Now everyone who has looked long upon life knows that of all the maladies, mental or physical, that afflict human nature, “nothing” is the most common, the most dangerous, and the most incurable! When you see a person preoccupied, downcast, despondent, and ask him, “What is the matter?” and he answers, “Nothing,” be sure that it is something great, unutterable, or fatal! (pg. 22-23)
Did Mr. and Mrs. Middleton fear no harm in the close intimacy of this gifted boy of seventeen and this beautiful girl of sixteen? Indeed, no! They believed the proud heiress looked upon the peasant boy merely as her protégé, her pet, her fine, intelligent dog! They believed Claudia secure in her pride and Ishmael absorbed in his studies. They were three-quarters right, which is as near the correct thing as you can expect imperfect human nature to approach; that is, they were wholly right as to Claudia and half right as to Ishmael. (pg. 280)
This book is so resplendent with themes almost anyone could relate!
Overcoming Odds – Ishmael is the underdog and we readers love rooting for the underdog! The first part of the book tells the story of Ishmael’s parents and aunt, revealing the reasons for his depraved start in life. All the things that could have made his life easier are introduced and removed, making the reader feel the anger of injustice and the sympathy of watching harsh circumstances unfold. But despite it all, Ishmael is full of life and optimism even from a young age to the degree that his circumstances seem to have no bearing on what he could do with his life. Ishmael inspires the reader by showing how a positive approach to life, hard work, and diligence can result in overcoming all odds stacked against you.
Benefits of Hard Work and Self-Discipline – Ishmael was born without a silver spoon in his mouth … or any spoon for that matter. Raised in poverty by an aunt who didn’t love him as she should, Ishmael had to seek out knowledge from whoever was willing to teach him and chose to diligently study whatever came his way. He works from a young age to bring in much needed funds, never complaining and never indulging in self-pity. He does his work cheerfully and with excellence, both of which bring him high esteem from others around him and later on his teacher, peers, and employer. Ishmael is intelligent but pairs it with diligent work—laziness and leisure aren’t a part of his life—and he reaps many rewards from serving others well.
Other themes include: the bond of family and heritage, the follies of pride, love of learning, knowledge is power, societal prejudice, and the rewards of selflessness, the hardship of poverty, love and redemption.
Hannah Worth – The story begins with Hannah and her sister Nora who share a modest hut and make a living by spinning and weaving. Hannah is a practical, sensible woman—traits she tries to instill in her sister but to little avail when Nora is besotted with the handsome and wealthy Herman Brudenell. Hannah suffers as her sister suffers and unfortunately, in her consternation with the circumstances, she puffs up her pride, refuses love and assistance and wishes the death of the baby Ishmael, her nephew. I’ll admit, I became quite angry with Hannah as I watched her cause more suffering for herself because of her pride. Hannah remains in this state for years and only begins to recover when Ishmael is a thoughtful teenager and Reuben, her scorned love, returns to woo her again. Hannah is redeemed by the love of Reuben and Ishmael and it just goes to show that as long as we have breath, we can change for the better and perhaps love is the catalyst for that change.
Reuben Gray – A kind-hearted stalwart fellow who decided to love Hannah Worth as a young man and didn’t stop even after being rejected and years spanned between them. He returns later on in the story still loving and wanting to marry Hannah and you can’t help but admire his faithfulness. It doesn’t matter to him that she’s become cranky and prideful—nothing she does changes his love for her. I especially love Reuben for the truthful and beautiful words he and Hannah share:
“But, Reuben, I am not good-tempered like I used to be; I am very often cross; and—”“That is because you have been all alone, with no one to care for you, Hannah, my dear. You couldn’t be cross, with me to love you,” said Reuben soothingly. (pg. 294)
Aww! He is so sweet! Reading dialogue like this makes me smile and feel all warm inside. And another:
“You have been more faithful to me than I deserved, Reuben; but I will try to make you happy,” said Hannah, with much emotion. “You do make me happy, dear, without trying. And now where is Ishmael?” inquired Reuben, who never in his own content forgot the welfare of others. (pg. 305)
Reuben loves faithfully and without condition, and I’m encouraged that this author spent her time on such a healthy, loving relationship for me to read about.
Ishmael Worth – If you want a role model of the highest order, Ishmael is your man. His maturity, integrity, perseverance, optimism, pureness of heart, selflessness, and exceedingly hardworking character is exemplary and praiseworthy. I cannot say enough good things about him so to put it simply, the way he goes through life is inspiring. Personally, I was uplifted by his work ethic. Ishmael takes pleasure in working hard which is such a counter-cultural concept in today’s world where advertising berates us day after day with messages of work less, retire early, rest more, clock out sooner, and relaxation equals happiness. There’s happiness in hard work, especially work that’s meaningful because it serves others. I also enjoy Ishmael’s love of books and learning—he adores both and is delighted by a chance to go to school. Again, Ishmael is very different from cultural norms of this day and age and I’m sure you’ll agree when I say he’s refreshing.
Beatrice Middleton – As the eldest daughter of the respected Mr. Middleton, Bee is mature and responsible in a way that rivals Ishmael. In fact, I would say that Bee is Ishmael’s equal in every way, except her upbringing. She selflessly cares for her younger siblings and keeps a loving but discreet eye out for Ishmael’s welfare. Bee loves and loves well—though she gets no credit for it or any return on the love she gives. She isn’t vain, haughty, or self-possessed but gentle, kind and clings to what is right while seeking to encourage those she loves to carry on down the right path despite the hurdles in their way. A helper, an encourager, a diligent worker behind the scenes, Beatrice is another wonderful role model.
Claudia Merlin – As a motherless heiress, Claudia has received little discipline or mature guidance and her character shows it. She’s beautiful, vain, and altogether more consumed with her position than is good for her. In the same vein as Reuben loving Hannah, Ishmael loves Claudia despite her pride and patronizing ways. Claudia comes to love him in return—to see him as more than a poor peasant pet—but her stubborn adherence to her pride and greed prevents her from ever outwardly returning Ishmael’s affections. She is a study in the cost of arrogance. Despite this, Claudia’s character is redeemed in Ishmael because he loves her and because Claudia defends and supports Ishmael with fervor.
The narrator can be a bit annoying at times when waxing on (and far too often) throughout the book of Ishmael’s finer qualities specifically his superior intellect and physical beauty. Around every corner, per se, there’s a description of his genius and handsomeness. Truly, I can’t say enough good things about the character of Ishmael…and neither can the narrator! There are instances of subtle legalism in this book so watch out for those. For example, the book treats consuming alcohol as a dire temptation and a sin when the Bible teaches drunkenness is sin, not drinking.